nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
September 26, 2007
Theatre is all about creating a reality and making it not just immediate, but livable for us in the audience. Even with horrors depicted that we may not wish to have happen to us, the particular reality created can draw us in with such force that we are willing to be there as spiritual support for the suffered, or at times even wish that we could get up on the stage and stop the wrongs or injustices we are witnessing.
Sive, by John B. Keane at the Irish Repertory Theatre, inspired such reverence on the night I saw it, to the point that gasps were sometimes audible. In one instance an audience member uttered to one character, "Don't do it!" without others in the audience responding with the usual laughter. It was a reality that lived.
The play is set in rural Ireland in the 1950s. Sive is the youngest of the three-generation Glavin household, an illegitimate daughter of dead parents. Her very presence—not to mention her education and fair appearance—stirs great resentment in her Aunt Mena, who is plain, entered this family young and poor herself a long time ago, bears the blame of not producing any children, and has had less opportunity for advancing in life than Sive seems to have, at least to Mena's own thinking. A harsh and cold temperament is yet another strike against Mena in her mother-in-law Nanna's eyes. Sive, on the other hand, is thoroughly adored by her grandma Nanna.
Young Sive's life turns into impending misery when matchmaker Thomasheen comes to visit with a proposal—and money promised—by an elderly farmer, Sean Dota. Mena couldn't be happier to make this deal, and although her husband Mike seems capable of feeling all kinds of trepidations, he is ultimately too weak, and too greedy as well, to stand up to Mena.
Sive has her heart set on a local boy, Liam, and is dead-set against this arrangement, but social convention prevents her from exercising her own choice. Even Nanna, having less power in this home as another mouth to be fed, cannot have her voice heard. The townspeople "talk" about this match, but no intervention is coming Sive's way. Only two traveling tinkers, sent by Liam, make an attempt to rescue Sive, but bad faith, piety, and an overwhelming sense of resigned acceptance all conspire against her.
The play delves deeply into how a harsh life can warp and harden people, and how repression and suffering is supported by a silent majority as surely as it is caused by the deafening commands issued by one tyrant. Keane's villains are not exactly three-dimensional characters, but instead manifested in selfish concerns and immediate gratifications that diminish human spirits.
This careful rendition of the play by Irish Repertory Theatre provides an authentic feel to the reality it strives for with vivid period detail and speech; it may take a few minutes to get our bearings after entering this world, but it pays off as the sight and sound strongly anchor the story. Director Ciarán O'Reilly gives the story its darkest, bleakest shadings and kinetic pacing, and these prove emotionally effective as the tragedy unfolds. All the designers—Charles Corcoran (set), Martha Hally (costumes), Jason Lyons (lighting), Zachary Williamson (sound), and Robert-Charles Vallance (wigs and hair)—are instrumental in framing this world believably for us.
The actors are the other half of the equation for bringing about the realism, and they do a uniformly plausible job. Wrenn Schmidt as Sive is quietly endearing and ultimately heart-breaking. Terry Donnelly's Nanna is a frail presence of conscience; her alternate pleas for help for Sive and scolding of Mena's greed testify to her verbal dexterity. The pair of tinkers are played by James Barry and Donie Carroll with great humility; they also sing before—yes, on the stage, as we get seated—and throughout the show and are truly show-stoppers. Patrick Fitzgerald's sly Thomasheen is a villain who actually made the audience around me hiss.
In the end, what makes this reality—long past in a remote land—compelling is the repressed desire, be it to afford a better life, or to escape from the bad one, that stares us in the face and looks strikingly familiar. Perhaps there have been one or two moments in our lives that we wish to go back into, when we also want to say to ourselves, with all earnestness and urgency, "Don't do it!"